The University of Maine in Orono would get much of its heat and electricity from an on-campus Renewable Energy Center fueled by locally harvested wood and a huge solar array, according to a plan being negotiated by the university system and Honeywell International.

The outline of Honeywell’s power contract proposal is contained in a document prepared for the University of Maine System last year in response to requests for proposals to transition most of the Orono campus from natural gas and fuel oil to renewable energy. Honeywell’s proposal was a runner-up in the original RFP process. The financial section is heavily redacted and omits any information about the cost of the power contract, although it has been estimated to be worth more than $100 million.

The document had been requested for months by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, which has been chronicling the controversy about prior plans to power the campus with wood energy from an abandoned paper mill in neighboring Old Town. It’s noteworthy now because, although the project design and contract terms could be modified in negotiations, the details at least sketch a picture of how UMaine is seeking to move forward on a major energy undertaking.

New York-based ConEdison Solutions initially had won the right to negotiate a contract to power the Orono campus with wood-fired steam and electricity from the former Expera mill. But in late February, a few weeks after the newspaper published stories revealing secret recordings that suggested a university official had provided inside information aimed at helping the ConEdison team win the bid, and that the university system chancellor had a conflict of interest in the bid, ConEd abruptly pulled out of the deal.

ConEd declined to comment or offer an explanation. UMaine System spokesman Dan Demeritt said at the time that ConEdison was uncertain about its ability to lease assets in the Expera mill and wouldn’t be able to provide a firm pricing offer or an energy delivery plan by the university’s required deadline.

“They proactively withdrew from negotiations based on conditions beyond their control,” Demeritt said.

UMaine officials then went back to Honeywell, the first runner-up in a competitive bidding process, to negotiate a contract.

After providing the document last week, Demeritt said he didn’t have a timeline for the talks, but that the deal would be reviewed by the university system board’s finance and facilities committee, as well as the full board and the public.

“If negotiations are successful it will come forward for public review,” he said. “Given the scale of the project and potential benefits, UMaine will likely package and distribute a press release when the timing is appropriate for community engagement.”

The new central heating and power plant could be a “living laboratory” for the school’s forestry and engineering students, and showcase UMaine’s emerging interest in sustainability solutions and technologies under the Honeywell plan.

The energy system conversion is being driven in part by UMaine’s goals of drastically cutting emissions associated with climate change. It seeks to virtually eliminate net greenhouse gas emissions by 2040.

Honeywell says its project will achieve 85 percent of that goal. Adding a second element of efficiency measures that reduce energy demand on campus, such as upgrading lighting and motors, could bring that number to 94 percent.

The proposal also estimates the potential money savings from a long-term wood-fuel contract that could provide stable and predictable energy costs. UMaine now spends roughly $10 million a year on electricity and heat. That expense could be cut to $4.3 million with the new power plant and solar array, Honeywell estimates, and to $2.9 million if the so-called demand solution is integrated.

The energy division of New Jersey-based Honeywell says in its proposal: “UMaine has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to ‘Define Tomorrow’ with its energy systems, resulting in an on-campus energy cornerstone and a symbol of the international reputation that UMaine has proudly earned in curriculum, climate change and global research.”

These are some highlights from the proposal:

The project would take more than two years to build and would rely on Maine subcontractors, steering tens of millions of dollars into the state’s economy.

The new 6-megawatt central heating and power plant would be located behind the Facilities Management building on the east side of the campus, next to the East Substation. This would keep most fuel delivery trucks off campus. The 4-megawatt solar array is proposed south of the Emera Planetarium.

The plant would burn 70,000 or so tons of wood chips a year from sustainably harvested timber, cut within 50 miles of Orono. Honeywell suggests working with the School of Forest Resources to create a site visit and post-harvest review process, to assure that sustainability certification standards are being met.

This activity would circulate $2.1 million a year in the local economy and create 50 jobs in logging, trucking and forestry. Additional jobs would be created at the energy center.

The combined heat and power plant would use natural gas and oil or liquid biofuels as backups for its boilers, as well as the solar array. The plant would produce high-pressure steam to drive a turbine to generate electricity. Power from the grid would fill in the balance; no power would be sold off-campus. The plant’s design would allow it to run most of the campus in the event of a blackout or natural disaster.

A classroom and meeting space would be located adjacent to the boiler house and could be used to teach subjects related to the plant, climate and sustainability issues. These include engineering and forestry classes, as well as agricultural classes that could use wood ash, one of the byproducts of biomass plants, as a lime substitute in farming.

The exterior facade could be a modern glass structure, according to suggested renderings, or perhaps a brick and glass structure with historic overtones of an old generating station. Inside, a public walkway could give visitors a way to observe operations and learn about the energy system.

If the project goes forward, it would be a much larger and complex version of the biomass facility that currently heats the University of Maine at Farmington campus. That $11 million plant was developed by Trane U.S. Inc. It went on line in 2016, burns 4,000 tons a year of locally harvested hardwood chips, and replaced nearly 400,000 gallons of oil. University officials have said they expect the savings in energy costs to help pay off borrowing debt within 10 years.

 

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